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August 6, 2016

Where is Protective Legislation for TV ads that Target Seniors?

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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The man in a white lab coat holds up a test tube, similar to those we used in high school chemistry class. He lightheartedly taps the mysterious blue liquid in the tube while telling us; "If you are not completely satisfied, we'll give you your money back." For emphasis, he adds, "I will give you your money back."

The supposed medical professional is touting a formula he claims to have invented for the relief of his wife’s chronic pain and now wants to share it with all of us, for a price of course.

He and his marketing company hope you’ll be so impressed by their TV ad that you’ll rush to the drug store and buy this miracle medication.

But even if you do buy it and find it at least does no harm, you won’t get any relief from the pain of having that ad in your face every time you sit down to watch news, a sports game, home-reno show, or an episode of your favorite sitcom or mystery series.

TV ads are ubiquitous these days, sucking up more than one-third of program viewing time on most networks. But among the worst offenders for tortuous repetition, vague promises, deceptive wording, and sheer dumb-down irritation, are those intentionally targeted at seniors. 

Seniors are bombarded by TV ads because their age group still uses television more than social media for information and relaxation.

Advertisers also know that many seniors are vulnerable to impulse buying and can be easily manipulated into spending money freely to alleviate chronic pain, buy insurance they don’t need, or sign up for high-interest loans against sound financial advice.

While there are many tech-savvy seniors out there – and the numbers will vastly increase as Baby Boomers defiantly age – a good number of older seniors living alone today suffer from anxiety and/or depression as well as lack of exposure to financial and technical education.

Often they have few friends or family members with whom to consult for advice on whether a product is worth the money, or if they really need it.

This is especially true for medical-assist devices: you’ll rarely hear an ad for health gadgets cautioning potential buyers to check with their physician or physiotherapist first.

So it’s open season on circulation revivers, electric stair-chairs, therapeutic bath enclosures, adjustable beds, wireless fall-detector pendants, magnetic bracelets, muscle-stimulator patches and numerous other “fits all” items.

We’re all familiar with those TV ads that sell the biggest “intangibles” of them all – security and protection.

Numerous companies politely scare seniors into buying “affordable, no medical” life insurance just by answering a few “simple” questions.

They are so kind as to let everyone, even 80-year-olds, in on it so they can buy “protection” from inevitables like funeral expenses. But their generosity is all a big lie. Insurance companies are near the top of the profit-making food chain, second only to banks.

Their ads often show the insured and their beneficiaries as happy, healthy and relaxed. Why? There is no monthly protection from death or taxes!

Along the same dubious line is the steady proliferation of ads selling medical coverage for items and procedures not paid for by provincial government health care plans. These ads are just as scary, telling you in solemn tones that if you depend on government coverage you’ll be left to fend for yourself and endure prolonged deprivation and suffering if you become seriously injured or ill.

That’s another big lie. Canada’s government-supported health care is justly ranked among the world’s best.

And who isn’t familiar with the grandparent of all TV ads – the ones who blanket our entire population demographic with immortal lines like, “but wait, there’s more!” or, “act now by calling (an 800 number) in the next 10 minutes and get a second (gadget) free.”

None of those items is free, of course. The hucksters always make huge profits on inflated shipping and handling charges, as well as displaying US Dollar prices on items shipped from within Canada.

While we’re all susceptible to these supposedly miraculous new can openers, non-stick pans, stain-removers, low-fat grills, furniture scratch protectors and the like, seniors are especially vulnerable to fast-talking, debonair middle-aged men with odd mid-Atlantic accents. 

Where TV ad targeting gets into seriously big money is in the relatively new game of so-called “reverse mortgages.”

If you’ve worked long and hard for decades to pay off your mortgage, you’re a prime recipient of hundreds of pitches every month pressuring you to “unlock the value in your home.”

These ads are presented to have you believe the company will pay you to live in your home so you’ll have enough “extra” to travel, finance renovation projects, pay off other debts, buy a new car, etc. It sounds too good to be true … because it is.

In reality, you become a greater slave to a reverse mortgage than you ever were to the traditional kind. When you move or sell your property, huge accumulated fees become due and can eat up any remaining equity you have left – a disaster for seniors needing to transfer to costly assisted-care housing.

And how about some of those other “intangibles” on which we’re encouraged to spend money?

If you’re looking for love, or just casual adult companionship, there are TV ads for that too. Match-making is one of the fastest-growing TV “products” and comes complete with try-it-free inducements for every age bracket; but to get anywhere of course there are fees, and more fees.

Similarly, TV sellers can also match you up with your ethnic roots or even your own DNA. The implications of a little knowledge in either area can be a Pandora’s Box, where what matters a lot can get mixed up with what barely matters at all.

Our federal government has been slow to catch on to the impact that age-targeted TV ads are having on the current generation of seniors.

From dubious medical and financial claims, to the 1/10 second appearances of “fine print” so fine even a healthy 12-year-old couldn’t read it, these ads are no longer entertaining for their brash stupidity. In many cases, they’re downright dangerous and there seems to be far too little legislation in place to curb the voracious greed of their creators.

If the federal government is so serious about crafting legislation that allows the choice of “dying with dignity,” shouldn't it also be looking at better ad legislation to safeguard seniors’ rights to “live with dignity” as well?

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